Telematics a-Go-Go

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2001

How the computerization of automobiles in Japan will forever change the way we related to our cars.

by Bruce Rutledge

DAVID HASSELHOFF TALKED TO his Pontiac Trans Am in the 1980s American TV series Knight Rider. The car, called KITT, could think, fly, and intercept police calls. James Bond has had some pretty special cars as well: an Aston Martin DB5 with a seat ejector and bulletproof glass, a Lotus Esprit that could turn into a submarine, and an Aston Martin Volante that could ski, for example. And Go Mifune of Mach Go Go, better known outside Japan as Speed Racer, had a Mach 5 that was no slouch: At the press of a few buttons, Mifune could increase his visibility, jack up his car, and activate rotary saws. Generally, these cars have been seen as creations of fervent imaginations, depicting a world where technology knew no bounds. Yet today, dreams of talking cars and infrared vision just don't seem that wild anymore. In fact, there's a good chance that you'll be talking to the next car you buy. That car is likely to be hooked to the Internet, have James Bond - like technology such as night vision, radar, and charge coupled-device (CCD) cameras, and be so chock-full of little microprocessors that when you come home from work, turn on the TV, and watch Knight Rider reruns, you'll smile and shake your head at the primitive little fantasies of Hasselhoff and crew.

"If (technology) continues to charge ahead at this pace, there will be a flood of information inside the car," Nomura Research Institute wrote in its book Ubiquitous Network, published in 2000.

In some respects, the flood has already begun. Japan is the hands-down world leader in car navigation systems, having sold about 6 million units, compared with about 500,000 units in the US, analysts say. Drivers can access the Web through their cellphones or through new car navigation systems. They can listen to their MP3 music files on special car stereo systems. And dashboards are filled with displays offering drivers information on everything from whether they are staying in their lane to how fast they are approaching the car in front of them.

Just peek into the front seat of a Nissan ITS Car 2001-i, a test vehicle for new technology, and you get a glimpse of the not-so-distant future: A 10.4-inch liquid-crystal display monitor sits atop an array of buttons that looks like it belongs in a cockpit, not a car. One button connects the driver to Compass Link, a two-way information center for voice and data. An operator on the other end of the line will look up and call phone numbers for the driver, relay email, and contact the nearest Japan Automobile Federation site in case of car trouble. A CCD camera sits behind the rearview mirror to monitor your driving. Sensors and radar in the front grille give the driver information on what's around the next corner and how fast traffic ahead is traveling. A telephone handset in the backseat lets passengers chat or surf the Net while the driver concentrates on the road. Of course, the driver can flick a switch and activate the hands-free phone and microphone in the front if he or she wants to get into the conversation. When approaching a toll booth, the driver can slide a prepaid integrated-circuit (IC) card into a slot in the dash and zoom through the electronic toll booths as sensors deduct the fee from the card. If traffic slows to a halt, then the whole family can watch one of the two TVs -- one in the front, one in the back (there's also a broadcast satellite tuner and antenna in the back). And if there's nothing to watch, they can play video games, watch a videotape, or maybe turn on the in-car karaoke unit and sing a few favorites. All these gadgets are ready to go today.

Car technology is progressing quickly. Products that have been years in the making are suddenly heading to market. In August, Toyota Motor and Dentsu started offering a service for drivers to buy the music they hear on the FM radio as they drive. FM radio stations send information about all the songs they play to the Media Click site, and drivers, using Internet-enabled cellphones, can go to the site and place an order for a compact disc, or just browse and find out more about the song they just heard. From next spring, drivers should be able to use their car navigation systems to place the orders, according to Toyota officials.

Brainstorming sessions in corporate meeting rooms have elicited some interesting potential applications for car technology. Kyoto-based Omron has even tossed around the idea of wiring windshield wipers to enhance weather updates. Wipers all over Tokyo would be monitored, for example, and rain updates would be tied to how fast wipers in different parts of the city were going. The offshoots of all this car technology are endless.

Soichiro Honda, the late founder of Honda Motor, once said he "didn't know a darned thing about electronics." He was the consummate mechanic, and in the good old days mechanics were what made cars great. What would he think, then, if he took a tour of his company's research centers and found engineers studying ways to release aromas from the dashboard to awaken drowsy drivers, others prodding cockroaches and studying their antennae, and still others checking the eye movements, heart rates, and sweaty palms of test drivers?

When asked how many microprocessors are used in today's cars, Yoshikazu Noguchi, Toyota's general manager in charge of intelligent transport systems, just smiles and says "a lot."

But some executives in the automaking industry find little to smile about as the car goes through this current wave of computerization. More of the work is going to computer companies, leading ad agency Dentsu, and others previously not associated with the car industry. Traditional carmakers are finding themselves challenged on their own turf by a new set of companies. It's not that these newcomers are going to start making cars anytime soon; it's just that they are dominating the aftermarket and some of them, including Omron, plan to eventually have their telematics gadgets embedded in the car. Some of the most lucrative parts of the cars of the 21st century are likely to be made by companies known for systems and gadgets, not cars.

One industry insider says central processing units (CPUs) account for about 30 percent of a car's worth these days. "Instead of hardware, emphasis is on software and communications," Noguchi says. "It's a dangerous time for hardware makers."

So it's no surprise that the word "telematics" gives carmakers reason to pause. What is telematics? Omron defines it as "the technology for delivering and accessing in-vehicle cellular phone (voice) and Internet (data) services." Basically, telematics gives the driver information -- potentially a flood of information -- and turns the front seat of the unassuming family car into a cockpit for navigating the information superhighway. Telema-tics is a hot seller that is bound to get hotter. The market is generally thought to be generating about $4 trillion in sales worldwide, analysts say, but the outlook for the next decade varies wildly, from a low of about $13 trillion by 2010 to highs reaching $100 trillion. Even pessimists say the telematics market will grow over the next few years. The key to growth in the market, analysts agree, is the adoption of standardized and open systems and interfaces, something that has yet to happen as each carmaker has pursued its own course.

Some of the telematics technology has come from the Japanese government's decade-long effort to build an intelligent transport system, complete with automated roads and detailed reports about traffic. The government opened electronic tollbooths this March in Chiba prefecture, and over the years it has tried to spur carmakers to come up with innovative safety systems -- although carmakers privately say the former Construction and Transport ministries were often more of a hindrance than a help.

The Transport Ministry led carmakers through two five-year plans in the 1990s to come up with technologies and systems to improve safety and ease the infamous congestion of Japan's big cities; the government estimates that the congestion causes an annual economic loss of \12 billion and keeps Japanese drivers stuck in traffic for 5.3 billion hours a year, well more than 40 hours a year for every driver in the country.

But the rest of the telematics innovations are coming from all corners of the high-tech world and are largely unfettered by government interference ... er, guidance. That means that the techies out there can have a field day shopping for cool aftermarket car gadgets -- all sorts of tiny televisions, MP3 car stereos from Casio Computer, car navigation systems complete with their own hard drives from Pioneer, and anti-theft systems from Omron that call your cellphone when someone breaks into your car (and use satellites to give you constant updates about where the car thieves have taken it). Of course, for those of us who are not all that tech-savvy, the car aftermarket has become a confounding display of bells and whistles threatening to crowd the dashboard and distract the driver. At its early stages, the telematics flood is both invigorating and frustrating.

Jiro Fujiwara, senior manager of Omron's business incubation center, puts it this way: "Telematics is about connecting the car to the outside world. The car is no longer an independent unit -- it is becoming part of a social network. The technology allows you to drive safely and comfortably. Everyone -- electronics makers, phone designers, carmakers -- is heading in this direction, thinking about what sort of design cars should have. Cars used to be about just horsepower and engine size. From now on, they'll be about information." Tadashi Tateuchi, managing director of the Japan Electric Vehicle Club and a former F-1 designer, casts driving in the future in a slightly different light. "In the 20th century, cars were about power. The disabled, elderly, and people who don't like driving were left out. We have to ask ourselves whether that is the sort of car we want in the future," he says. With successful implementation of intelligent transport system (ITS) and telematics technology, Tateuchi believes, "the disabled could drive. So could children, the elderly, even drunks. You could even fall asleep at the wheel. It would be a more gentle, barrier-free society."

Toshikuni Imaizumi of Nissan Motor's logistics and administration group agrees that drivers will soon be able to drive their cars without using their hands. The technology in Nissan's two test vehicles, called ASV-2s, can keep the car in between the highway's white lines and even maneuver curves without any help from the driver, thanks to a combination of CCD cameras, computers, and microwave technology. "But there's a debate going on," he says. "If everyone is using automatic driving, the driver has no responsibility."

Noguchi of Toyota says, "Our first priority when making these new technologies is not automatic driving. It's to make spinoff technologies."

There may be some roadblocks to realizing Tateuchi's utopia of a gentler car culture, but carmakers in Japan are especially concerned with how the elderly will use cars. "Japan is an aging society," Yutthana Manussuntornvut of Honda's public relations division says when explaining why Honda is so concerned with safety. And because Japan is aging faster than any other industrialized country, it certainly makes sense for Japanese carmakers to put more effort into making cars for seniors.

Carmakers are tight-lipped about exactly what sort of technology they expect to have in their cars a few years down the road, saying that everything depends on government approval, but they are testing all sorts of technology. Honda, Toyota, and Nissan are all working on systems to increase safety. "A few technologies, like adaptive cruise control, which monitors the speed of the cars ahead and adjusts driving speed accordingly, are already available in some of today's more expensive models. Others, like Honda's Human Intelligent Driver Support (HIDS) system, are being tested on Japanese roads this year.

Cars generally take four or so years to develop, test, modify, and bring to market, according to Omron's Fujiwara. He says carmakers and other companies making products for cars really started focusing on wireless access to the Web about two or three years ago. That means new models released over the next few years should be full of new wireless technology.

Carmakers have also been experimenting with CCD cameras, infrared and microwave technology, and wireless communications systems for several years. Much of this technology is still being tested but could be just a year or so away from appearing in luxury models, which is where many telematics gadgets get their start.

Honda has created six prototype vehicles under its HIDS system to test its safety technologies. Those technologies include:
  • Night vision. This system uses infrared technology embedded in the grille of the car to detect pedestrians and animals on or near the road. An infrared picture will appear on the lower windshield, alerting the driver to the presence of something or someone ahead.
  • Active headlights. The top half of these headlights turns with the steering wheel, lighting the road better on curves.
  • Motorcycle-automobile wireless communication systems. Honda is using its expertise in motorcycle manufacturing to develop a system that allows bikes to communicate with cars. Since most accidents involving bikes and cars happen at intersections, the system will warn drivers that a car or motorcycle is approaching from another direction when they approach a crossing.
  • Lane maintenance systems. A CCD camera just behind the rearview mirror and a laser radar sensor embedded in the grille monitor the car's progress and make sure it's staying between the white lines and not advancing too quickly on the traffic ahead. The data is sent to a computer under the driver's seat and relayed to a display in the dash. When the system is on, it will sound a warning and adjust the car's speed or direction, but the driver can override the system at any point by turning the wheel or stepping on the brakes or gas. This is the technology that could be used for no-hands driving. Nissan and Toyota are developing similar technology, but Honda's Manussuntornvut says that since the second government five-year plan to build safer vehicles started in 1996, "each carmaker works separately, taking different directions."

The directions don't seem to be that different, though. For example, Toyota uses a steering sensor to gather information for drivers who have trouble backing up or parallel parking. A display guides the driver along the best path. And Nissan is experimenting at its Oppama research center with systems that keep the car in its lane, automatically brake, and monitor the distance and speed of the traffic ahead. These technologies sound pretty much like the ones Honda is developing. At Oppama, Nissan is adding a few twists:

  • It is experimenting with a CCD camera embedded in the dash and pointed up at the driver. This technology is used by other manufacturers to warn drivers who are nodding off at the wheel, but Nissan is now developing a system that will monitor inattentive drivers as well. If both of the driver's eyes move from a set area, a warning will sound.
  • Nissan is also experimenting with a system that would release an air bag on the outside of the car to keep pedestrians hit by cars from slamming into the windshield. It also is trying raising the hood upon impact. "The hood is soft," explains Imaizumi, "but the windshield is hard and it can really hurt people."
  • It is testing infrared sensors in the back bumper that sense when an animal or person is behind the car and automatically keep the car from going into reverse. "The infrared technology can tell the difference between a piece of cement and a living thing like a child or an animal," Imaizumi says. "Also, the technology is inexpensive."

Expense is one thing keeping the flood of telematics products from roaring out of control. Millions of Japanese may be willing to pay ¥30,000 or so for a car navigation system, something that prompts Toyota's Noguchi to call Japan a "mysterious country," but how far does their interest in new car technology go? Consumers are already complaining that the dashboard attachments needed to use electronic toll booths are too expensive, prompting the Land, Infrastructure, and Transport minister, Chikage Ogi, to announce in June that the government would give up to a ¥30,000 discount to drivers using the attachments.

Toyota, Nissan, and Honda tend to put their latest technologies in their most luxurious cars because, as Nissan's Imaizumi says, "That's the easiest place to put them because of cost." But the jury's still out on how much new car technology drivers want. Some drivers of Nissan's latest Cima and Primera models were offered free Compass Link communications services for a year. Drivers can get road information, business headlines, email, and other services through the system. While it is too early to rush to judgment, Imaizumi says some consumers like the technology but others say either that they don't need it or wouldn't pay much for it.

The same goes for the mayday systems carmakers are putting in their luxury cars. These systems call for help when a crash occurs. But people just aren't ready to pay tens of thousands of yen for these extra safety systems, Toyota's Noguchi says.

Still, as car technology spreads, prices will come down. The key to making that happen fast, industry insiders say, is to create corporate alliances and build open interfaces that can relay all sorts of information over one display. Omron's Fujiwara says that's one reason his company formed an extensive partnership with Cellport Systems of the US this June. The two companies announced that they would set up a joint venture company to sell telematics technology -- including Cellport's hands-free cellphone system -- in Japan (For more, see "US Telematics Player Braves Japan," July 2001). Fujiwara says the new company will push aggressively for a standardized interface that everyone can use. "Car manufacturers and car navigation makers must cooperate. We can't ask drivers to keep buying different displays. That's nonsense."

If a standardized gateway into the car is decided upon, then software and information providers will race to get their services into your car. Right now, chaos reigns, with many systems on the market for delivering information to drivers, and little or no standardization.

But Fujiwara says companies are bound to see that standardization is the only way to push the information revolution into the driver's seat. Here's Fujiwara's vision of driving in the near future: "The driver wants to make a call, so he says, 'Wake up, Cellport,' and Cellport's hands-free kit will switch on. Then he says his friends' name. 'Bruce, please.' And the kit calls up Bruce. They chat and decide to meet in Osaki. After the call, the driver says, ÔI want to go to Osaki. Please show me a map.' The system contacts a portal site and displays a map. Then the driver knows where to go. We can do this sort of thing very soon. Today's technology can already do this."

The question that society must answer is just what sort of car we want for the 21st century. The technology is there -- it's simply waiting for governments, drivers, and carmakers to make up their minds about where to go.

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